Blowing the whistle on the referee

Click to follow
Ian Wright calls them "Little Hitlers", but where do referees come from? It was easy to spot the budding megalomaniac with a whistle in my day.

At primary school, while you were being constructive, running round the playground shouting your head off and stamping on beetles, he'd be in the corner with his Airfix kit. He never joined in the kick-in.

Later, when you matured into acts such as sneaking under-age drinks and being rude to waiters in Indian restaurants, he would disappear from your orbit. Then, one Sunday morning, as you took to the muddy pitch with your head full of bitter, transporting the combined fragrance of Old Spice and Rogan Josh and discussing why you hadn't pulled the previous night, he'd be back.

A scrupulously clean figure, standing in the centre circle and practising his whistling before the game had even got underway. By then he had been working his way up the hierarchy at the local bank and, in his leisure time, he was wearing his jumpers too tight.

This reunion on a windy morning would have little to do with football. This was a chance of retribution for the bullying and scorn of short-trousered days. This was revenge and you would be sent off.

I'm sure it is not like that these days and that the vast majority of the 32,640 registered referees are all-round good eggs with no malice in mind.

But even referees themselves acknowledge they are a breed apart. "Referees are a unique bunch of people," Peter Willis, the president of the Referees' Association, says. "And if you are an adjudicator in some ways I suppose you are a little Hitler. You have to be a dictator on occasions because you are charged with enforcing the laws.

"But referees are people who simply love football. I've got barristers and people from every occupation you could think about [including, presumably, as crowds wittily suggest, servers behind bars]."

There is something masochistic, though, about a man who is prepared to run up and down in ill-fitting shorts in front of 40,000 people who are suggesting that he is not much of a bloke. For this pleasure referees are paid from pounds 4 up to the pounds 325 the Premiership men receive.

In no other sport is the official so badly treated by either the spectators or participants. The respect of players usually leads to a similar response from the other side of the fence, both codes of rugby being a perfect example.

To protect their referees, the governing body of international footballer, Fifa, should perhaps consider borrowing elements from those games such as sin-bins and 10-metre retreats for arguing with decisions.

The decision that is most fascinating in football is the penalty, an area in which there is a great deal of referee psychology. You have got more chance of getting a penalty if either a) the other side has already had one; b) you have appealed for a few; c) you are 2-0 down; d) you are at home; e) you are Liverpool or Manchester United.

One of the great things about penalties, incidentally, is that when the award is contentious the benefiting manager never seems to get a good view of it. Yet every time it is blatant he talks as if the incident has happened in his lap.

I was a linesman for Nottingham Forest Ladies a couple of times (it seemed a small price to pay as I later married the central midfielder), and it's not quite as easy as it looks, but then I was emotionally involved (I actually once broke my flag).

Other jobs at the football stadium have their problems. If you report on a game there is frequently a supernatural force which rolls your pencil off the table just at the time a goal is being scored. What's more, it happens to all the other hacks at the same moment, which is why, occasionally, the player named as providing the final cross is actually on loan to Grimsby at the time.

More than 6,000 people a year take the referee's exam and those that make it to the very top (there are currently 19 Premiership referees) will come under increasing pressure and scrutiny as money becomes an even greater god. One decision, in a championship decider, could cost millions of pounds. (This fluid factor is also what makes the cliche that the best team always wins the championship such a load of old junk).

Some say appointing ex-players or professionals is the way forward, but they do not have the present referees in their chorus. "There is no God- given right that former players should make good referees," Willis says. "It's like saying all burglars would make good policemen.

"And the money is irrelevant. Referees make mistakes whether you pay them pounds 20,000 a week or two pence a week. They are human beings."

But, for some reason, all these human beings in the British game seem to be small fellows. Referees should be like that tall, bald bloke in Serie A, the one who could play Blofeld in a Bond movie and looks as though he would pull a stiletto from his sock if you as much as queried the ball pressure. I bet he didn't make Airfix kits.